This is a question that has been bugging me for a couple of years now, and one that won’t go away or receive a satisfactory answer. My question centres around Toyota’s continued involvement in Formula One despite a lack of results, made worse by the enormous amount of money the motor manufacturer pours into the team each year. They have achieved very little in the five years they have competed, and the end of the tunnel appears to still be shrouded in darkness as deadlines have recently been made regarding the future of the team. I have been unable to answer the question myself, but perhaps you, dear readers of BlogF1, could enlighten me…
Let’s take a brief look at how Toyota got themselves into the sport, their general sporting achievements and what they’ve done for Formula One since their inception in 2002.
Rallying, Sports Cars & Formula One
Toyota are one of the planets largest automobile manufacturers, founded in 1937 by Kiichiro Toyoda, and since then has grown rapidly to be a dominant force in the motor industry. Currently, Toyota own Lexus and Scion, own a large stake in Daihatsu and smaller stakes in Isuzu and Yamaha. Alongside their arch rivals Honda, Toyota represent Japan in F1 and the Japanese Grand Prix is now held at the Toyota-owned Fuji Speedway circuit.
Toyota have found success in a variety of motorsport classes, first founded by the F1 operation’s former boss Ove Andersson. It was the early 1970’s and Ove was raising eyebrows by entering a Toyota Celica in the World Rally Championship. Although the success was a slow development, he consistently managed to outclass the other Japanese entrants. By 1990 they had their first drivers title in the WRC, repeated in 1992 and the constructors trophy was won in 1993, 1994 (both with drivers titles) and in 1999 (just the constructors).
Other than rallying, Toyota also entered the 24 Hour Le Mans in the late 90’s, using their GT-One sports car. The machine wasn’t particularly reliable, but the crew did manage a second place finish in 1999. However, the chance to compete in motorsport’s most prestigious series was too much of a temptation, and by 1999 the manufacturer started developing a Formula One car. By 2002, they were ready to compete after a lot of extensive testing.
On their debut at the 2002 Australian Grand Prix, the squad impressively picked up a point and success looked to be almost guaranteed for the team. With huge funding from the corporation, Toyota’s ambitions were high, but during their inaugural season they only managed another point in the third round. The team then had mixed results for the next two years until, in 2004, it looked as though they had matured and started to consistently finish in the points. In fact that season saw the squad collect 88 points and they finished fourth in the constructors championship. It wasn’t to be repeated though, and 2005 brought Toyota back down to earth with a bump. Since their very first race in 2002 to the present day, Toyota have only manged to claim 163 points from 207 races.
Toyota’s best result to date was two second place finishes in the 2005 Malaysian and Bahrain Grands Prix. The team have also clinched a pole position in the same year at their home race in Japan, although this result was perhaps skewed in their favour by running very light during qualifying in order to gain as much exposure for their visiting sponsors. The result from that race was an 8th for pole-sitter Ralf Schumacher and team mate Jarno Trulli retired.
Where Are Toyota Now?
Following the 2007 season, where the well-funded team only managed 13 points, it became public knowledge that the Toyota corporation were becoming weary of the lack of results. The squad are believed to have one of the largest budgets in the sport, some even suggesting the largest, a crown that normally rests on Ferrari’s head. But despite their massive funding, it isn’t being translated into results. Having completed five seasons, one would have expected Toyota to be further up the grid than where they currently sit. Due to this, the corporation have given the team two years to improve. There were no repercussions laid out should the squad fail to achieve results, or even what these results should be, but it is reasonable to assume that regular podiums is the benchmark, and failure to achieve this would result in the plug being pulled on the operation.
It was also admitted early in January ’08 that Williams, whom Toyota supply engines to, had actually helped the manufacturer team with the development of their quick-shift gear box, as well as advising on political matters within the sport. This to me is utterly astonishing given the differences in the teams budgets. It also highlights that money is not necessarily the key factor in running a successful Formula One team. For sure it helps, but I would suggest talent and experience are more critical.
Yesterday saw the launch of the TF108, Toyota’s sixth car to compete in Formula One, and along with the excitement of seeing a new car came the promise of improvement. Both the team managers and lead-driver Jarno Trulli stated that the car was a huge step forward and podiums in 2008 were a realistic goal for himself. Second driver Timo Glock feels that he can hit the ground running despite not competitively driving in Formula One since October 2004, then in a Jordan.
Unfortunately, I cannot see how Toyota can expect improvement without a dramatic shake-up of the team and its personnel. While building a new car is great and saying it is a vast improvement over its predecessor is morale-boosting, it seems as though the team are presuming that everyone else won’t have improved their cars either. The impression of the team to me seems to be one of poor management decisions and an attitude of doing it our way, even if it doesn’t work. While the determination to make their processes and procedures work should be applauded, there has to be a point where the team realise it isn’t working and a change to their approach is needed.
When Ralf Schumacher left the team after the 2007 season, he felt as though the management at Toyota weren’t doing enough to push the squad forward. It is believed they didn’t go after Ross Brawn, considered by most to be an enormous talent in Formula One management and tactical awareness. And neither did they really go after Fernando Alonso, again considered by many to be a supremely talented driver, backed up by his two championships. The fact they let Mike Gascoyne leave the team was astonishing to just about everyone in the paddock. Mike, known for his knack of developing under-performing teams into regular point-claimers, showed dedication to Toyota and even commuted from the UK to the teams HQ in Cologne every day. But citing differences in the future direction of the team, Toyota lost a great talent.
Sometimes I genuinely wonder why Toyota are in the sport at all. Clearly promotion, and therefore sales of Toyota motor cars is an important factor to consider, but as Clive from F1 Insight pointed out recently, maybe they’re not doing so well in that area either and reputations can be just as important as car sales.
That confirms what I have been saying about manufacturers in F1 – that they are here for marketing purposes and will leave if the sales do not flow from their involvement.
I have heard it said that just participation is sufficient for Toyota, that they need the market to see them as a company with sporting credentials. But this latest news shows that, without sporting success, the credentials are as good as non-existent. Clive Allen, F1 Insight.
The team seem to lack a real passion, or at least they do not outwardly show their passion, and thus do not endear me to them. Their management is poor, it must be given the lack of results, and they seemingly contribute little to the sport. In comparison, Williams have a great tradition, continue to strive for repeated greatness and hold their values and respect for the sport high. McLaren, Red Bull and Renault occasionally run their cars on (closed) public roads at events in attempts to show-off, get fans closer to the cars and of course to promote themselves. BMW set up their travelling theme park and Minardi and Ferrari built two seater cars which allow wealthy fans a chance to experience Formula One speeds. And Toyota? Well they are regulars at motor sporting events like the Autosport Show and Goodwood as well as the various motor shows around the world, but it isn’t exactly ground-breaking stuff.
I honestly wouldn’t mind if Toyota closed its doors tomorrow and retired from Formula One. It would be a shame to lose a team from the grid, but maybe another company could take on the buildings and machinery and continue competing, Prodrive for example. It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of the 2009 season, when Toyota’s deadline for results is up. I’m expecting a small improvement between now and then, but I’m not sure it would warrant the massive investment from the corporation to continue. Are Toyota’s days numbered? Perhaps, perhaps not. But the team is certainly under the microscope at the moment.